‘Defeat Smugglers to Stop the Big Guns Getting Away with Elephant Murder’


Julian Newman, Evening Standard

Date Published

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Gathered on a rooftop, overlooking the small port of Malindi in Zanzibar, Tanzania, a group of Chinese businessmen observe the loading of a container onto a cargo ship. Watching through binoculars, the men clutch plane tickets to China for a rapid escape should the container be searched.

There is no search. Port staff are bribed, the contents are listed as sea shells and yet another cache of illegal ivory begins its long journey to the markets of Asia.

This scene was described to the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) by an insider with links to a major ivory-smuggling syndicate operating out of Zanzibar. He claimed that in 2013 alone, 20 containers were sent to China, each containing between two and three tonnes of illegally poached ivory.

In recent years, Tanzania has lost more elephants to poaching than anywhere else in Africa. In 2009, the country’s elephant population was 110,000. By 2014, it was 43,500. Hardest hit have been the herds in the wilderness areas of the Selous Reserve in the south of the country, where populations collapsed from 70,000 in 2006 to just 13,000 by 2014.

Having investigated the ivory trade since the late 1980s, the EIA has built a detailed picture of the gangs involved. Supply chains are dominated by a relatively small group of criminal syndicates, numbering tens rather than hundreds. Raw ivory shipments typically weigh between one and four tonnes and travel concealed among legal goods in shipping containers.

“Gang leaders usually hail from Asia,” says Mary Rice, EIA’s executive director. “They operate through a series of agents at every stage of the chain, avoiding any physical contact with ivory. Shipment is arranged through proxies, so when seizures are made, underlings usually take the fall.”

In late 2013, a surveillance operation led police to a house in the upmarket area of Mikocheni in the commercial capital of Dar es Salaam. They discovered three Chinese nationals packing ivory into sacks topped with seashells and garlic. The raid netted 706 tusks, weighing 1.8 tonnes, and large amounts of cash.

A company importing garlic and food additives from mainland China functioned as a front for the ivory-smuggling operation. Shipping documents at the property indicated previous suspicious shipments to China and revealed another consignment was about to leave the country. The suspect container was tracked down to the port of Zanzibar, where it was about to be loaded onto a vessel bound for the Far East. Inside officials discovered 1,023 raw tusks weighing 2.9 tonnes concealed in sacks of seashells.

Two of the three men arrested at the Mikocheni house received 35-year jail sentences, but they were only hired labourers. The suspected ringleaders, Chinese nationals Deng Jiyun and Zhang Mingzhi, left on a flight bound for southern China as soon as the container was seized. Interpol issued Red Notices for their arrest but pair remain at large.

Even after major seizures, authorities often fail to shut down syndicates. Criminals use legitimate banking systems to shift money, and it’s difficult for under-resourced legal systems to secure convictions for financial crimes like money laundering. In the Mikocheni house case, accounts in Tanzania and China linked to the main suspects recorded two transactions totalling $500,000 on a single day, yet an investigation never materialised.

“Another stumbling block is cross-border co-operation,” says Rice. “While ivory smuggling gangs operate globally, using communications technology, finance and transport systems to move ivory halfway around the world, government agencies are still hindered by national boundaries.”

Cross-border syndicates constantly probe for weak spots in the system. In April 2015, customs authorities in Bangkok seized 3.1 tonnes of tusks in a tea shipment originating from Mombasa, Kenya. The ivory was sourced from neighbouring Tanzania and smuggled across the land border under fruit. The use of tea was no accident; at that time all exports of tea leaves from Mombasa were exempt from scanning.

The cost of non-intervention is high. As long as conviction rates remain low, and profits remain high, there is little to deter kingpins from making a killing. Only when those at the top of the trade are prosecuted as vigorously as those at the bottom will we begin to get a grip on the poaching crisis decimating Africa’s elephants.